Sergeant James Anton and the 42nd Highlanders were still advancing in line across the open field of clover, ignorant that the cavalry to their right were not dog-eating Germans, but Frenchmen. Then a German staff officer galloped past the battalion shouting that the approaching cavalry were ‘Franchee! Franchee!’ The horsemen were lancers.
We instantly formed a rallying square; no time for particularity; every man’s piece was loaded, and our enemies approached at full charge; the feet of their horses seemed to tear up the ground.
This was desperate work. A battalion in line was fearfully vulnerable to a cavalry charge, but an infantry square could defeat almost any attack by horsemen. Yet it took time to make a square and the Highlanders had no time and so the order was shouted to rally. This was almost a panic. Instead of the careful ordering of the companies into a rectangle bristling with bayonets, the 42nd simply ran towards the colours and formed a huddle with the men facing outwards. Some lancers were even trapped inside the hastily forming rally-square and were dragged from their horses and killed. The skirmishers, who were deployed ahead of the battalion, stood no chance and were ridden down by the lancers, as was the battalion commander, Sir Robert Macara. Sir Robert’s death was witnessed by the 42nd and it enraged them. He had been wounded earlier and, just before the lancers appeared, was being stretchered to the rear in search of a surgeon. The stretcher was either two jackets with their sleeves threaded over a pair of muskets or, more likely, a blanket held by the four men carrying him. The French saw the wounded man’s medals and braid and, presumably in search of plunder, callously slaughtered all five men. That was murder, not warfare, and it enraged the Scots. They drove off the lancers with musketry, but later in the day the officers of the 42nd had to restrain their men who were slaughtering surrendering Frenchmen with shouts of ‘Where’s Macara?’
Captain Archibald Menzies, who commanded the Grenadier Company of the 42nd, was also trapped outside the rally square. He was a man of legendary strength who, preferring to fight on foot, had handed off his horse to a drummer boy. Menzies (pronounced Mingis) was wounded and fell next to Private Donald Mackintosh. The drummer boy abandoned the horse and ran to help, upon which a lancer tried to seize the valuable animal. Mackintosh, with his last effort, managed to shoot the lancer, ‘you mauna tak that beast,’ he is reported to have said, ‘it belongs to our captain here!’ A French officer, seeing Menzies trying to stand, attacked with his sabre;
As he stooped from his saddle (Menzies) seized his leg, and managed to pull him off his horse upon him. Another lancer, observing this struggle, galloped up and tried to spear (Menzies, who), by a sudden jerk and desperate exertion, placed the French officer uppermost, who received the mortal thrust below his cuirass and continued lying on Menzies’s body for near ten minutes, sword in hand. A pause in the battle permitted some men of the 42nd to carry their officer into the square of the 92nd, where he was found to have received sixteen wounds.
Menzies survived and lived until 1854. While he was tended in the 92nd’s square his own battalion tried to form line again, this time to oppose an approaching column of French infantry, but almost immediately they were threatened by still more cavalry, this time Cuirassiers. Cuirassiers were France’s heavy cavalry and the riders wore metal breastplates. The 42nd formed square just in time to receive the charge. ‘The Cuirassiers,’ Anton remembered, ‘dashed full on two of (the square’s) faces; their heavy horses and steel armour seemed sufficient to bury us under them,’ but the horses sheered away from the Scottish bayonets.
A most destructive fire was opened; riders cased in heavy armour fell tumbling from their horses; the horses reared, plunged, and fell on the dismounted riders; steel helmets and cuirasses rang against unsheathed sabres as they fell to the ground.
The murder of the wounded Macara had inflamed the Scots and is a reminder of how good relations were between officers and men in Britain’s army. Again and again, in letters, diaries and memoirs, that mutual affection shines through. Too often the British army of the early nineteenth century is depicted as a mass of whipped soldiers led by aristocratic fops, a picture which is utterly misleading. Most officers came from the middle-classes, clergymens’ sons being especially prominent, and the long wars had honed their skills. The 42nd killed defenceless Frenchmen late in the day because they had been maddened by Macara’s murder, they wanted revenge, and that reaction sprang from their affection for their commanding officer. There was more than affection, there was admiration. An officer might be wealthy, certainly wealthier than the average private, he was privileged and even, sometimes, aristocratic, yet he still shared the dangers of the battlefield. Officers were expected to lead by example. Rifleman Costello, of the 95th, said the troops divided officers into two classes, the ‘come on’ and the ‘go on’, ‘and with us,’ he said, ‘the latter were exceedingly few in numbers.’ Rifleman Plunket once told an officer, ‘The words “go on” don’t befit a leader, Sir.’
Not all officers were respected. Private Thomas Patton was an Irishman in the 28th Foot, a Gloucestershire regiment, and at Quatre Bras they were in square and had been ordered to hold their fire. Enemy horsemen had surrounded the square, but were making no effort to break the redcoated ranks, it was a stand-off, but then Patton recalled how a French officer, he thinks he was a general, ‘came over our bayonets with his horse’s head and encouraged his men to break into our square.’ Patton, who was in the third rank, lifted his musket and shot the enemy officer dead, whereupon Lieutenant Irwin struck Patton over the face with the flat of his sword. Patton protested and was told he was being punished ‘for firing without orders’. General Sir James Kempt was in the square and he quashed the Lieutenant, ‘Silence . . . let the men alone; they know their duty better than you!’
The duty of the British infantry was now to stave off increasingly heavy attacks from cavalry, infantry and artillery. Lancers had led the French cavalry attacks, but they were reinforced by Kellerman’s Cuirassiers. General François-Etienne de Kellerman, a long name for a diminutive man, was one of the most celebrated of Napoleon’s cavalry commanders. When he arrived at Quatre Bras he was immediately ordered by Ney to charge the enemy, an order Kellerman questioned as he only had 700 Cuirassiers under command, but Ney insisted, ‘Partez!’ he shouted, ‘mais partez donc!’ Go! Go now! Kellerman did not want his men to see just how many enemy they were being ordered to charge and so, unusually, he took them straight into the gallop, ‘pour charger au galop! En avant!’
The Cuirassiers first charged the Highlanders and were driven off. One French trumpeter, a lad just fifteen years old, was so astonished by the kilted regiments that he thought the British cantinières were fighting. Cantinières were women who followed the French army and sold food, drink and, often, other comforts to the troops. Kellerman led his men past the squares, storming on towards the crossroads that the French had been ordered to capture.
Reinforcements were arriving for both sides and had to be fed almost immediately into the chaos at the field’s centre. The 44th, a regiment from East Essex came to support the Highlanders and, like them, was surprised by cavalry. They had no time to form square so their commanding officer turned his rear rank about and saw the lancers off with a volley, though not before some of the horsemen reached the centre of the line where they tried to capture the colours. One of the battalion’s officers recalled how;
A French lancer severely wounded Ensign Christie, who carried one of (the colours), by a thrust of the lance which, entering his left eye, penetrated to the lower jaw. The Frenchman then endeavoured to seize the standard, but the brave Christie, notwithstanding the agony of his wound, with a presence of mind almost unequalled, flung himself upon it, not to save himself, but to preserve the honour of the regiment. As the Colour fluttered in its fall, the Frenchman tore off a portion of the silk with the point of his lance; but he was not permitted to bear even the fragment beyond the ranks. Both shot and bayoneted by the nearest of the soldiers of the 44th, he was borne to the earth, paying with his life for his display of unavailing bravery.
The 30th, a battalion from a Cambridgeshire regiment, came up behind the 44th. Ensign Edward Macready, just seventeen years old, had noted the smoke hanging thick over the battlefield as he approached and he also remarked on the birds flying in panic above the Bossu Wood. He described;
The roaring of great guns and musketry, the bursting of shells, and shouts of the combatants raised an infernal din, while the squares and lines, the galloping of horses mounted and riderless, the mingled crowds of wounded and fugitives, the volumes of smoke and flashing of fire.
Macready and the 30th marched into that chaos, and passed some wounded of the 44th. The two battalions had fought alongside each other in Spain and, as the newcomers advanced, the wounded men of the 44th;
Raised themselves up and welcomed us with faint shouts, ‘Push on old three tens, pay ‘em off for the 44th, you’re much wanted, boys, success to you, my darlings.’ Here we met our old Colonel riding out of the field, shot through the leg; he pointed to it and cried, ‘They’ve tickled me again, my boys, now one leg can’t laugh at the other!’
The wounded colonel was a Scotsman, Alexander Hamilton, and the surgeons decided to amputate the leg, but every time they readied for the operation they were called away to deal with a more urgent case and, in the end, they simply left the wounded limb alone. Hamilton walked on it until his death in 1838.
While Colonel Hamilton waited for the knife which never came, Macready was reinforcing the British line. They came up alongside the 42nd and Macready remembers having to step over dead and wounded Highlanders;
We reached (the 42nd) just as a body of lancers and cuirassiers had enveloped two faces of its square. We formed up to the left and fired away. The tremendous volley our square, which in the hurry of formation was much overmanned on the sides attacked, gave them, sent off those fellows with the loss of a number of men, and their commanding officer. He was a gallant soldier, and fell while crying to his men, ‘Avancez, mes enfants, courage, encore une fois, Français.’
‘Advance, my children; have courage, one more time, Frenchmen!’ No one knows how many cavalry charges were made by the French. Some accounts of the battle list four, others five, six or seven, and the truth is no-one knows, and probably did not know even when they were on the battlefield. Quatre Bras was a confusing fight. There was no vantage point for either side to gain an impression of what was happening in the cauldron where men fought, suffered and died. Wellington’s troops arrived all afternoon and he fed them into the fight where British line opposed French columns, and British lines were threatened by the ever-present cavalry and so formed square which made them an easy target for the efficient French artillery that was smothering the farmland with thick skeins of smoke. Wellington needed to reconnoitre the fighting for himself and was almost caught by Kellerman’s cuirassiers who had charged close to the crossroads. The Duke turned his horse, Copenhagen, and galloped towards the Gordon Highlanders, the 92nd, who were in four ranks just in front of the Nivelles Road. The Duke bellowed at the Highlanders to duck, they crouched, and Copenhagen soared over their heads to carry his rider to safety. That was the closest the French came to the vital road and the horsemen suffered for it, being slaughtered by the Highlanders’ volleys.